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Migration, Gender and Identity in the New Political Economy

Migration is synonymous with change. Migration of an individual from one place to another involves fundamental changes in attributes that shape one’s identity and that provide the margins within which one defines her ‘self’. Within the process of migration itself are inherent economic, social, spatial and psychological changes that force a readjustment of one’s beliefs, notions and temperament. Women have always been the social group more prone to migration owing to the patriarchal and patrilocal model followed by a greater part of the Indian society. One of the main factors differentiating male and female gender was the migration and relocation of the latter to her husband’s house and clan after marriage. The migration herein, was not restricted to a change of residence but encapsulated a redefinition of a woman’s entire existence, from her name to her status and functional role in society. In this way, the reconstitution of a woman’s identity was ritualised.

With increasing global mobility and easing social norms, marriage is no longer the sole reason for migration in women’s lives. Neo-liberal practices and incessant globalization are giving rise to new and varied forms of migration. Even stereotypical gender roles of daughter, wife and mother are gradually undergoing modification in order to adapt to the new political economy. Whether as migrants or as the non-migrating family members of migrants, the lives and gender identities of women are getting reconfigured.

In the Indian context, urbanization and industrialization have been ‘patchy’ at best. A large chunk of total internal migration taking place in India is that of rural to urban migration. Greater scope for employment and even the lure of city life attracts hordes of Indian men from villages to Indian cities each day. Most men look at jobs in the city as a viable means to supplement their dwindling agricultural income in order to make ends meet. While men go to work in the city, women, left behind with elders and children to look after, often end up assuming responsibilities earlier fulfilled by the husband. Although faced with higher pressures of farm work and animal rearing, the wife also has at her behest greater independence and decision-making powers. Research shows how increased interaction with the outside world and financial responsibility foster a sense of self-confidence in the wife of the migrant labourer. The identity of the wife undergoes transformation as she is forced to handle ‘masculine’ tasks like representing the family on social platforms, handling the finances of the family etc. This is specifically true for nuclear households but not so much for joint households where other male members (usually the oldest male member) maybe present. In this scenario, empowerment comes as a by-product of having to become the ‘man of the family’. In the process, the wife may also become inclined to engage in income generation activities to make up for intermittent remittances. The success of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and microfinance among rural Indian women is also reflective of their growing contribution to family income.

On the other hand, for some women, the absence of the husband may lead to a reinforcement of control of the older members of the family over the behaviour of the wife. The idea of controlling and constraining the sexuality of a woman has always been prevalent but may become more prominent in the absence of the husband. Long periods of sexual inactivity and the risk of being infected by HIV through the husband due to his possible sexual exploits in the city are other pertinent issues.

Another scenario in which the traditional gender role of women undergoes change is when the husband migrates to seek employment in the city along with his family. Most rural to urban migrants end up taking employment in the unorganised sector of the economy, largely in construction work, industrial labour, the hospitality industry etc. As wages are low and inflation makes subsistence in the city difficult, women are often forced to take up employment too. The sight of migrant women working as domestic help or as helpers in construction work alongside their husbands is not uncommon in a modern day Indian city.  Equally common in the informal economy is gender discrimination and female marginalization. Not only are women paid less than men, they face higher risks of sexual exploitation at the workplace. In addition to that, the woman is weighed down with the burden of dual responsibilities: manual labour at the workplace and domestic work of the household. I have observed that while the man spends his evenings drinking local liquor, the woman comes back home to cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Despite earning income on their own, such women continue to remain vulnerable and subjugated. Their gender only adds on to the insecurity they suffer by virtue of being migrants. As the husband continues to dominate in terms of decision making and financial control, her identity remains blanketed by her role as a wife and mother.

A noteworthy aspect of this issue is that the absence of the mother forces the oldest daughter to care for her younger siblings and perform household work, thus sacrificing any opportunity to gain an education. She takes on the role of the woman of the house and is naturalized into it.

The personal and reproductive health of female migrants also suffers gravely due to the sense of shame or embarrassment attached to their personal hygiene compounded by the lack of basic sanitation facilities. Moreover, children of migrant workers are prone to sexual assault (especially at the hands of supervisors and contractors) and trafficking for sex work.

It needs to be pointed out that in the existing government data on migration, female migration is largely recorded in terms of their social role and position in the family. Due to definitional classification and survey design, women’s migration is seen as either as a result of marriage or of associational migration (i.e. as members of the migrating family). The employment status of women before and after marriage is not given due attention. As a result, they are identified only as appendages to the male migrant even as their substantial contribution to the economy as part of the migrant labour force gets neglected. On the one hand, customary gender roles are being shaken in the new economic environment ascribing an economic function to a woman, and on the other hand, what could have been a part of her identity is overlooked due to her perceived social role. Also, such shortcomings in official statistics are a big hurdle in the way of policy-making and can be crucial in determining the gender-related aspects of the policies.

The impact of migration on identities of women, particularly on the traditionally prescribed social and familial roles of Indian women is immense. Conventional roles are getting bent and newer forms of gender identification are emerging. With the nature of migration undergoing subtle changes in itself as a result of the rearrangement of political-economic values, the associated gender aspects will evolve in the process. The process of readjustment of identities as a response to the changes brought about by the phenomenon of migration is likely to continue.